July 25, 2011

From Norway With Love (and Roses).

A message from elephant’s Norwegian columnist.

I was attending a yoga retreat in Denmark when someone’s iPhone reported that a bomb had gone off in Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s office that killed 7 people. My flight for Oslo, Norway was scheduled to leave the next morning. By the time I woke up, the same iPhone reported that an additional 80 people had been killed at a youth labor party camp on the small island of Utoya.

When I first heard about the bombing in Oslo and the massacre on Utoya, I first thought it was a pro-Gadaffi terrorist protesting Norway’s support for the opposition in Libya, or perhaps a fundamentalist Muslim protesting the Norwegian publication of the Mohammed drawings.

It never occurred to me that it was a Norwegian, who, Timothy-McVeigh-style, had a right-wing extremist Messiah-complex. His twisted political message: to “protest” the recent influx of immigrants and the loss of nationalism.

That the terrorist was a blond Viking in a fake police uniform, who had created a fertilizer bomb, just like Timothy McVeigh did when blowing up a Oklahoma city building killing 168 people in 1995—that did not cross my mind at all when I first heard the shocking news.

My reaction had been knee-jerk (yes, we yogis aren’t always immune to knee-jerkism). By the time I boarded my plane the next morning, we all knew that the planning behind this violent tragedy had been homegrown. The terrorist and loner Anders Behring Breivik had planned it all from a small farm. He wanted to grow organic vegetables, he claimed. Instead he ended up buying lots of artificial fertilizer—all intended to make a terrorist bomb.

The author of a 1,500 page manifesto proclaiming the need to purge Europe of foreigners, Breivik later told police his action was “horrible” but “necessary.” So horrible, indeed, that fellow neo-nazi sympathizers said in chat-rooms that he should have stuck to killing high-profile political leaders, not young kids. Such twisted consolations!

The terrorist’s high-profile targets had been, it seems, the Prime Minister, leader of the green-left coalition, Jens Stoltenberg, and also the former Prime Minister and coiner of the phrase “sustainable development,” Gro Harlem Brundland, who had planned to address the young, left-leaning campers assembled on Utoya.

Not able to harm these two celebrities, he instead did the unthinkable: he massacred 68 plus (the total number of killed was fortunately adjusted downward today, but five people are still missing) innocent young political activists and government workers with a fertilizer bomb, a pistol and a semi-automatic gun.

When I arrived in Oslo that morning, all the shops were closed and the otherwise busy downtown, usually crowded with tourists, was deserted. Everyone was at home, glued to TV and computer screens watching the news as the tragedy unfolded with surreal bits of information.

That afternoon, I had lunch with family and friends, including a friend of my niece who had wanted to attend the camp on Utoya. But fortunately her “strict” father did not allow her to go. At 15, he thought she was too young. In fact, many of those killed by the blond madman had hardly been much older than my niece’s friend.

Politics enter our veins at an early age here in Norway. I have myself attended similar youth camps, one for young socialists and one for anarchists.

To give a quick overview of the multi-party democracy of Norway: there are nearly a dozen political parties, from the far-right to the far-left. On TV and radio and in newspapers, all kinds of political views are routinely heard. It is not unusual to see a panel of politicians representing six different political perspectives on the same program on TV—from the far-left to the far-right, from green to red.

That would be unthinkable in the two-party “democracy” of the US, where I now live.  And unlike the US, if you vote, you know that someone you vote for is likely to represent you in the parliament.

The newspapers (yes, Norwegians read more newspapers than just about any people on earth) feature the latest political views and discussions. Each Norwegian family usually subscribe to 2-3 newspapers to get a broad view of the unfolding of political events.

In other words, Norwegians are generally a tolerant and open-minded people. Imagine, then, the surprise when such a monster as Breivik stands up with gun and Bible in hand and declares war on reason, post-modernism, and multiculturalism.

To give you another perspective on politics here: A right-wing Norwegian newspaper analyzed the policies of Barack Obama and found that they came out a bit to the right of the right-wing Norwegian party. That’s right! The US president, who Rush Limbaugh calls a communist, would be on the far right of politics in Norway!

That’s in part why Breivik, the right-wing, fundamentalist terrorist, targeted Jens Stoltenberg, the leftist Prime Minister, and the members of the leftist youth wing of his party: to protest the country’s liberal openness and lack of fundamentalist pride and nationalism.

Yet another perspective: Norwegians pride themselves of having turned their Viking heritage of violent conquest into calm bravery. Norwegian politicians have become known worldwide as effective peace negotiators; the country has one of the lowest crime and murder rates in the world; there is no death penalty, and non-violent prisoners may visit their families on weekends.

Hence, Norwegian police do not usually need to carry guns while on service, only during special operations, such as on this dreadful day on Utoya. Celebrated Norwegian rebel and writer Jens Bjorneboe once said, when comparing Norwegian police to their American counterparts: the Norwegian police is more like the Red Cross.

A few hours after the bombing, an extremist group with anti-immigration messages put up posters in my home town Fredrikstad. All the posters were promptly taken down by angry and offended pedestrians. The next day, local politicians voiced their outrage in the local newspapers.

A few years ago, the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a member of Fremskrittspartiet, a right-wing party that has become increasingly popular in Norway. Even though this party is not neo-Nazi by any stretch of the imagination (by American standards, it’s part Republican mainstream, part populist Tea-party), the anti-immigrant rhetoric heard among its more angry members is similar to the one sometimes heard on, say, Rush Limbaugh’s talk show.

In other words, the Norwegian terrorist loner is not completely alone in holding extreme anti-immigrant views in otherwise peaceful and tolerant Norway. But it is likely Breivik left Fremskrittspartiet due to lack of support for his growing extremist views.

His views are, however, shared by a growing number of conservative extremists across Europe. They are alarmed by Eurabia—the idea that Europe is being taken over by Muslims, a fact which, they claim, is supported by national and international politicians. Hence, Breivik’s need to kill the Prime Minister and his young followers, all those who are polluting the purity of European culture.

As one Muslim observer noted, there are many similarities between Breivik and Osama Bin Laden, not the least that they both kill and maim people from their own religion to make a point.

Had indeed the terrorist been a Muslim fundamentalist, the mood from within the Fremskrittspartiet, Breivik’s old party, would have been stridently anti-immigrant and nationalistic.  But now that the terrorist is blond like the rest of us, we cannot blame the immigrants, the Muslims, those “others.”

There are no scapegoats here today. For Norway right now, there’s only the deep pranayama of grief and introspection.

The Norwegian King Harald (yes, we still have a King amidst all the post-modern progress!) wept openly in church yesterday. All these tears, candles, and prayers, while we grieve from knowing that six young political activists from my region were killed in the camp on Utoya; while knowing that tonight, there will be a large candle-lit march in my hometown to commemorate the tragedy of all tragedies.

The mood in Norway right now is not made of hate and revenge. It is stridently meditative. As Prime Minister Stoltenberg said,

“We will show that…the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity—but never naïveté.”

Indeed, during tonight’s vigil in Oslo, where over 100,000 people gathered in memory of those killed, the mood was one of tender togetherness, even love. In his eloquent speech, Prince Haakon said that the streets of Oslo “are filled with love.”

The people echoed his gentle strength by holding up hundreds of thousands of roses. And as is customary in Norway, the Prime Minister, his wife, the Princess, and other politicians also stood among the people, waving in a sea of roses.

In my own moments of silence, I am taking it all in, one deep grief stricken breath at a time. Human civilization—enlightenment from within and enlightenment from without—is still a work in progress, my yogic mind reasons. A few healing moves forward, one painful move backwards.

Then I let go and surrender it all to a universe I imagine spirals forward toward a greater, all-embracing love. That’s the only yoga worthwhile doing in tragic times like this.

And the whole country of Norway seems to nod in quiet, meditative agreement.

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